Analysis

2023 NFL Week 1: Best 4th-Down Coaching Decision Matchups

We’re now solidly in a different era of fourth-down strategy than a handful of years ago. Teams are going for it on fourth-and-5 or shorter around 35 percent of the time in the last few years, compared to 21 percent as recently as 2017. 

The Philadelphia Eagles showed an extreme flavor of this lean with their rugby-style sneak formations. However, there are fewer punts and more do-or-die downs across the league, even beyond short yardage.

Each week this season, Sports Info Solutions (SIS) will be breaking down some of these critical decisions retrospectively and looking forward to the key matchups in the upcoming games through this same lens.

How We Evaluate Fourth-Down Decisions

SIS has built a win probability model that estimates how likely a team will win from a given game state. This considers just the key elements of the game state — time left, score, field position, yards to go, timeouts, etc. No additional contextual factors — specific players, momentum, schematic matchups — are considered, for better or worse.

Win probability is best used to evaluate tactical decisions like what to do on fourth down. We can take the expected win probability when a team takes each fork in the road and compare what it chose to what might have been optimal. 

This means we’re working in terms of expected win probability added (xWPA), evaluating the decision based just on the choice made and not on what happened afterward. 

You wouldn’t regret punting from your own 20 on fourth-and-10 just because the punt was blocked, and you shouldn’t regret going for it on fourth-and-3 from the red zone late with a tie score just because the pass fell incomplete.

For our head coach rankings, we’re taking each fourth-down decision from the last two calendar years with them at the helm and ranking in terms of Expected Win Probability Added per fourth-down decision and then by the percentage of the time their decisions have matched SIS’s recommendation. Any new coaches are not ranked.

3 Interesting Fourth-Down Matchups of Week 1

Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus

Packers (Matt LaFleur: 1st) at Bears (Matt Eberflus: 7th)

These division rivals engaged in notable transactions in the offseason, setting their arrows in opposing directions (depending on what you think of Jordan Love). Still, at least by this measure, they each look strong.

In terms of xWPA value, these two coaches are right at the top. Under Matt LaFleur, the Green Bay Packers have made the right call on fourth down as often as anyone, which separates these two just a bit. 

The Chicago Bears under Matt Eberflus have also cost themselves by passing up valuable field goal opportunities in favor of punts from opposing territory.

The 2022 Bears didn’t necessarily have to optimize all their in-game decisions because of the state of their roster and the value of getting a top draft pick. This year, they can capitalize on that competency a bit better.


New England Patriots Bill Belichick

Eagles (Nick Sirianni: 2nd) at Patriots (Bill Belichick: 27th)

We mentioned the Eagles earlier, and here they are with the biggest mismatch of the week. It might surprise some that the Eagles don’t dominate these rankings, but plenty of decisions beyond quarterback-sneak scenarios impact this. 

The Eagles aren’t the most accurate decision-makers in the league, but they make up for it with many high-value “go” decisions.

When a team makes a tactical change, it leans too heavily into it. To use a cross-sport analogy, the Houston Astros overused the infield shift in the mid-2010s, applying it in inappropriate spots. That gave away some of the value they gained by using it in the right spots. 

The Eagles have not suffered from that so far, and given most of their aggressiveness is on short yardage, they’re unlikely to run afoul of our rankings anytime soon.

On the other side, the New England Patriots have gone for it just 22 percent of the time when SIS would recommend it in the last two years, just more than half as often as the Eagles have in that time. It’s been a long time since that fourth-and-2 from their own 30 against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.


Cowboys' Formation Fail / Why Mike McCarthy Should be Concerned

Cowboys (Mike McCarthy: 5th) at Giants (Brian Daboll: 26th)

Here’s another division matchup of teams that fancy themselves as contenders in the same division as last year’s NFC Champions. 

A lot was made about Mike McCarthy studying the modern NFL before returning to coach the Dallas Cowboys. While he hasn’t shown a particularly strong tendency to push the envelope on fourth down, he has done exceptionally well regarding punt and field goal decision-making. 

The Cowboys have taken the points every time SIS has recommended doing so in the last couple of years. Brian Daboll’s New York Giants have left (expected) points on the board 14 percent of the time.

Daboll has conferred confidence and bravado onto his team that was needed to help them to a dramatic turnaround, but we don’t see that with fourth-down tendencies. The Giants went for it just 24 percent of the time when SIS recommended it in 2022.

Full Coach Fourth-Down Decision Rankings

*Two-year sample

Rank Coach Team xWPA +/- Correct%
1 Matt LaFleur Packers -0.6% 65%
2 Nick Sirianni Eagles -0.6% 61%
3 Sean McDermott Bills -0.7% 63%
4 Mike Vrabel Titans -0.7% 62%
5 Mike McCarthy Cowboys -0.7% 59%
6 Frank Reich Panthers -0.7% 58%
7 Matt Eberflus Bears -0.7% 58%
8 Sean McVay Rams -0.7% 56%
9 Zac Taylor Bengals -0.8% 65%
10 Dan Campbell Lions -0.8% 62%
11 Kevin O’Connell Vikings -0.8% 58%
12 Robert Saleh Jets -0.8% 56%
13 Arthur Smith Falcons -0.8% 51%
14 Mike McDaniel Dolphins -0.9% 66%
15 Kevin Stefanski Browns -0.9% 66%
16 Sean Payton Broncos -0.9% 56%
17 John Harbaugh Ravens -0.9% 54%
18 Brandon Staley Chargers -0.9% 53%
19 Doug Pederson Jaguars -0.9% 49%
20 Pete Carroll Seahawks -1.0% 59%
21 Andy Reid Chiefs -1.0% 59%
22 Josh McDaniels Raiders -1.0% 58%
23 Ron Rivera Commanders -1.0% 53%
24 Kyle Shanahan 49ers -1.0% 51%
25 Todd Bowles Buccaneers -1.1% 58%
26 Brian Daboll Giants -1.1% 52%
27 Bill Belichick Patriots -1.2% 52%
28 Mike Tomlin Steelers -1.3% 51%
29 Dennis Allen Saints -1.3% 46%
NR DeMeco Ryans Texans
NR Shane Steichen Colts
NR Jonathan Gannon Cardinals

This article was authored by Alex Vigderman.

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